CIO's In-Text Links: Ethical or Not?

Via a post on Paul Conley's blog, I learned that Framingham, Mass.-based CIO is putting what appear to be paid links in story text (example). Correction, 6:26 p.m.: CIO editor in chief Abbie Lundberg says that no money changed hands. I don't know for sure what the business arrangement is for these links, and according to CIO's own letter to its readers the links are part of a larger offering of social networking tools involving LinkedIn. But still, judging by that letter and this story from Reuters, it seems apparent that this is at least in part a commercial deal.

Conley considers these links to be unethical, just like the IntelliTXT in-text ads that have appeared on eWeek's site and others. He bases part of his argument on the assumption that the links were not approved by editors, though, and CIO's editor in chief says she did give her approval.

My initial thoughts on this -- and note that what I write here does not reflect an official ASBPE stance on the issue -- were that these links perhaps were a bit different from other paid links. At least they show potentially useful information and not just ad copy. My main objection was how annoying it was to have the links right in the story text. Are CIO's readers keen on networking as to warrant putting social networking information on every company name within the story? And that LinkedIn logo is a bit irritating, sort of like reading copy with a ™ trademark symbol next to every mention of a company's name. Also, there's the question of whether the links should be clearly labeled with the word "advertisement." As Paul notes, BusinessWeek's implementation of a similar feature puts the links in a separate sidebar. I don't know that that makes it more ethical, since there's no notation indicating whether the LinkedIn pop-up is part of a business deal and what role Hewlett Packard plays. But it's at least less obtrusive and more in line with how similar links (the social networking links to Digg and are handled.

The comments people have left on CIO's site so far (even discounting Paul Conley's comment) show a mixed response. Granted, since so far most of the comments are anonymous, there's no way of knowing if all the comments were left by actual CIOs and not, say, editorial consultants or competitors of LinkedIn. Still, as one commenter to the CIO announcement put it:
I'm not so sure I like this new feature … it's a bit distracting and adds an amateurish feel to the articles. … [the links] will only distract me from the content on your site. You might want to rethink this one … [second set of ellipses is mine]
It would be great if this were a tool created by CIO editorial and tech staff on their own initiative, using an open application programming interface (API). But it's not. [See correction above -- this does not apply.] In fact, according to the Reuters report, LinkedIn must approve all applications created using its API. In other words, the links are not strictly based on editorial judgement, as called for in ASBPE's code of ethics. [Again, per Abbie Lundberg's correction, the stricken sentence does not seem to apply to the CIO situation.] And if you're trying to help the reader network, why not include other networking sites like Facebook, Friendster, Naymz, and Plaxo?

ASBPE will likely issue an official statement on this matter; if that happens, I'll update this post to add a link to that statement.

Update, 4/16/08: ASBPE President Steven Roll has commented on the issue over at the ASBPE National blog.

Update, 4/22/08: Abbie Lundberg clarifies most of the issues raised in here a post on CIO's Difference Engine blog.

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Just because "no money changed hands" does not mean this isn't a "commercial deal." Anyone who's working in media knows that PVs are more valuable than dollars these days.

Why doesn't this media outlet at least put these LinkedIn links (and that "in" trademark) down at the bottom with the other links like "Digg" and "SlashDot"?
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : April 16, 2008 7:32 AM
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